Performing at your best, achieving a State of Flow at the highest levels of competition, cultivating a winning mindset, recovering from sports related injuries. All of these aspects are critical to being a modern and successful athlete.
Breathing for Athletes
There is a lot to be gained from training with a focus on the respiratory system, especially when we realize that through this training we learn to maximize the mechanics of breathing, manage the Autonomic Nervous System along with strengthening the mind’s will to endure stress and pain at very high levels when pushing for top performance.
In this article we will start by discussing basic mechanics and how the nervous system can be understood and utilized in order to obtain our highest performance.
Breathing techniques and mindful, positive (Flow) psychology are two tools that have been somewhat elusive for many athletes working to develop a winning strategy in their sport of choice.
Of the two, Flow psychology, which includes visualization and creating a winner’s mindset has been more prevalent in modern day sports and there are plenty of sports psychologists in the world, but how many athletes do we see with breathing coaches?
The answer is not many at all. Connecting the mind and body is critical when it comes to Flow psychology and the best way to create that connection is through understanding, practice and control of the breathing process.
Proper breathing techniques with an understanding of how to apply them in ways that match the sport being participated in along with how and when to deploy the specific technique within moments of competition are what can take you from the second step on a podium to the top.
Stig Severinsen, creator of Breatheology, has applied these techniques and strategies to the training plans he used for his world champion and world record setting achievements.
Many of the athletes we see performing at high levels have ignored breathing as a critical part of their training and instead fall deep in to the habits of overbreathing, not utilizing the muscles of respiration properly or efficiently and over stimulate the sympathetic nervous system pushing a Fight or Flight response in competition that although might have a place in short “sprint” focused sports, but for mid- range or endurance sports this approach leads to burn out and depleting the body’s physiological capability.
At the end of the day each type of sport will have a unique breathing strategy, but for now let’s touch on some of the breathing mechanics.
For athletes it is critical to have as much oxygen in the bloodstream as possible to provide the fuel our mitochondria need to create energy allowing our muscles to perform their function. This starts with the ability to create the deepest and strongest “vacuum” ability to pull air into the lungs. Upper chest and shallow breathing simply don’t get the job done.
Training the diaphragm, the large sheath muscle that bisects the body at the bottom of the rib cage above the belly, to be strong and flexible should be a main focus of training. The diaphragm when contracted creates a downward draw on the lungs creating a ballooning or vacuum effect that helps fill the lungs from the bottom up.
The lungs are most voluminous in the lower lobe areas, they have a somewhat upright triangular shape, so you can imagine that the largest area is closest to the base of the triangle.
In addition to the diaphragm, developing pliability in the rib cage and length in the longitudinal muscles of the abdomen provides more space for the lungs to expand into.
If we were to ask athletes, in which direction they take a breath in terms of mechanics most would say in the forward or ventral direction. When we train our full breathing capacity we learn it is a 360 degree set of mechanics.
Learning to utilize all the planes, lateral (sides), dorsal (backside), caudal (downward) and cranial (upward) is incredibly beneficial. Gaining strength and flexibility in all these directions is incredibly helpful especially when the body is under pressure or in positioning specific according to the sports requirements.
A good example that is easy to understand is that when you are performing a yoga posture that requires you to lie on your stomach you shouldn’t fight hard to pull all the breath into the lungs via the ventral-caudal plane. Choose efficiency in your breathing and work with the lateral and dorsal sides of your breathing musculature that aren’t under direct weight and pressure.
Translated, become an efficient and effective breather. The goal is to use only the muscles you must and use them efficiently, letting the other secondary or non-working muscle groups relax as much as possible. When you add consciousness and flexibility to your strength and willpower you can take your efforts to the next level and conserve fuel.
If you are a serious athlete and haven’t already, start to study the muscularity that affects your ability to breathe. Above we have lightly discussed some of the basic and primary aspects of mechanics, but trust us there are deeper secondary, tertiary and even deeper more complex layers of muscular connectivity (we won’t even start the discussion about the largest mobility creator and restrictor in the body – fascia!).
The muscles of your legs, hips, trunk, sacral, lumbar, thoracic and cervical regions, shoulders all play in to breathe fully, efficiently and calmly….so become a student of breathing today, the results and corresponding ability to lessen injuries are completely worth it.
Start learning about your personal mechanics today by simply lying down and scanning the body with your breath. Quiet your mind and start to follow or map your breathing. Healing goes where energy flows! With that in mind, sense the restrictions that inhibit you from taking a fuller breath and map those muscular connections (know there are layers of intellect and emotion that control muscular willingness).
During this process do not become athletic! Don’t work harder or use forceful breathing to break in to the areas that aren’t available, this will create an inverse myotatic reflex (a mouthful we know) this is where the nervous fibers emanating from the spinal column fire and work to protect the muscle fibers from injury by restricting the gliding of overlapping muscle fibers beyond their immediate lengthening capability.
Gaining access and creating a pathway to the parasympathetic nervous system through mindful controlled breathing allows the body to accept the stretch or opening and over time “muscle memory” will be developed as a sense of neural-safety is achieved in the muscular circuitry.
Autonomic Nervous System
Moving on from mechanics and muscularity basics, it makes sense to have an overview of the two-sided Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which consists of the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.
Breatheology has a major focus on guiding people in learning how to access the parasympathetic side of the ANS. In layman’s terms the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is home to our “rest and digest” cycle as opposed to the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) which houses our “fight or flight” response.
In modern society many people reside in the SNS for more time than they understand as that is part of the “new normal” in society. Being on high alert, managing stress, being fearful and feeling isolated is unfortunately part of modern living. Add something like COVID-19 to the mix and it only gets amplified. For athletes this can be a complex issue.
In theory for athletes the SNS which has domain over cortisol and adrenaline production should only be used when needed. For example if you are involved in track and run 1 mile race, you could use an adrenaline boost (SNS) to your advantage in the final kick to decimate your opponents to the finish line, but using adrenaline the entire race up to the final kick would more than likely take away your ability to increase your speed at the right moment and therefore potentially lose the race.
Again we will bring up the concept of efficiency and mindful control, but now it gets a bit more complex. Having maturity and control in a competitive environment is something that is learned through consistent training and experience. Applying mindfulness or achieving a “State of Flow” in the midst of competition is something the highest-level performers have over their competition.
Accessing areas of the nervous system that are needed on demand is an optimized capability that many have not been able to accomplish. This area of training is often overlooked and substituted with harder or longer training regiments. Quantity over quality for the sake of it is not the path to athletic success… it will only get you so far.
Slowing down to speed up, staying parasympathetic as often as possible, is part of what we consider the highest level of training. Having the deepest knowledge of self and of our intrinsic nature paves the ultimate path to success.
Take a moment to evaluate your performance tendencies and how you react in training and in competition. Are you turning on the afterburners all the time even on a low level, or at the appropriate time in order to have a winning strategy… how are you measuring your ability to conserve your energy while performing?
Time to try something… in your next training session simply change from mouth breathing to all nose breathing. Yes, initially your overall output might lessen, but what you can learn from this regarding your body’s natural endurance capacities will give you very valuable data to work with. The urge to breathe does not come from being oxygen depleted, it comes from the need to purge carbon dioxide, a metabolic waste product in the respiratory cycle.
We will share more on the biochemical aspects of this gas exchange in the next section, but for the moment understand that the urge to breathe is one of the most powerful survival instincts you operate under and like all other training you must learn to build endurance around the ability to manage higher loads of CO2 so a SNS response is not initiated due to a simple lack of this specific type of endurance.
As an athlete, especially if you are looking to perform at the highest levels, you must be willing to train outside the box for a competitive advantage. You can find more information about CO2 training and building up CO2 tolerance. Behind the scenes of being stronger and faster is a laundry list of physiological and biochemical processes. Become a student of your game by going beyond sheer will.
Whenever you are working with conscious breathing for performance remember like with all other training you will hit limits on the way to your maximum ability. Stay focused and work on progression in a consistent manner and the results.
Mastering the inner workings of your body’s nervous system first will raise your abilities and bring you amazing results! It will also help shine a light on your will to succeed.
As an athlete here just a few of the benefits you can look forward to as part of your breath training journey:
- Reduced breathlessness during physical exercise
- Increased oxygenated blood volume
- Improved balance, mobility and flexibility
- Help with acute and chronic pain management
- Improved nasal breathing to improve arterial oxygen uptake
- Simulated High Altitude Training
- Increased EPO (Erythropoietin) production naturally and legally
- Improved your VO2 max
Improve Athletic Performance
Competition is the name of the game for athletes. To beat the competition, it is crucial that you train extremely hard and utilize any advantage you can get.
While genetics play a role in determining the winner, the most intriguing athletes are the ones that are doing something that no one else is.
Start Your Journey Today
Begin or expand your breath work journey by choosing the course that is right for you.